McNamaraÆs illustrated history
Passion for safety flows through retiring National Cargo Bureau president's career.
by Chris Dupin
He did not come from a seafaring family, but James J. McNamara, who retired as president of the National Cargo Bureau at the end of March, has had a lifelong love of the shipping industry.
McNamara, 68, grew up in Lyndhurst, N.J., miles from the waterfront, but his grandmother used to take him to ride the ferry boats in New York Harbor to keep him out of his mother's hair on 'wash days' he recalled. Wondering where all those ships on the Hudson River were coming from sparked both his career and interest in maritime history.
A conversation with McNamara in his office is a bit like reading an illustrated book. He can point to pictures and other memorabilia illustrating his career and changes in the industry he has seen. Here's a picture of the sorts of steam tugs that were running around the harbor when he was a kid; here is the cartoon a cousin drew for him when he applied to maritime academy; here are drawings of the vintage World War II merchant ships he sailed on for States Marine before coming ashore to join the bureau.
'Around 1954, I started to help out at Seaman's Church Institute ' they had a museum called the Marine Museum on 25 South Street, and this old curator there, a fellow by the name Ralph Cropley, promised me an ordinary seaman's job when I got out of high school. In September of my senior year, he asked me to fill out this application to go to Ft. Schuyler,' the State University of New York Maritime College.
McNamara said he didn't even know about the school at the time, but it turned out to be an ideal match for his interests.
A chance encounter ' he was hitchhiking when he got a lift from a ship owner who was chartering a ship to States Marine ' led to a job with what was then one of the largest U.S. shipping companies.
An unsubsidized carrier, States Marine operated worldwide liner services, and though he sailed with just one firm his entire career, McNamara said he was able to travel 'all over.
'I was on the North Atlantic run for a while, then the Mediterranean, then India and the Persian Gulf, and then most of my time was in the Far East.' He sailed on about eight different types of breakbulk ships over the course of his career, advancing to master.
The ships carried a wide variety of general cargo ' military cargo including ammunition, bagged grain, and bulk cargo such as ores and sulfur.
As an officer involved in cargo stowage, his job put him in touch with NCB surveyors. In September 1970, he recalled, one of them told him, 'Jimmy, you are absolutely crazy, you are sailing to India in the middle of summer,' and suggested he come ashore and work for the bureau.
In addition to his respect for the NCB surveyors ' he said he always found their advice valuable ' he noted he had been dating his future wife 'since my maritime college days, and that also came into play. I started with National Cargo Bureau on Sept. 21, 1970, and I was married to Connie on Dec. 26,' he said.
McNamara's path to NCB is a familiar one ' most of its surveyors have their master's licenses and came to the company as a second career.
NCB posted McNamara all around the country. He worked for the bureau in San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif.; Houston; Baltimore; and Baton Rouge, La., before moving to its New York headquarters in 1984.
Baton Rouge, he jokes, is where his son, Jamie, and daughter, Carolyn, picked up Southern accents to the surprise of his New Jersey mother.
Jamie followed McNamara into the industry, attending SUNY Maritime, sailing and becoming a master, then coming ashore where he now works as the New York operations manager for Atlantic Container Line. His daughter is a professor at Loyola University in Baltimore.
McNamara, who became president of the NCB in 1993, has continued to do inspection work even as he ran the organization. Many mornings would start with a visit to the cargo terminals in New Jersey on his way to NCB's headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Shipping buff McNamara, of course, enjoyed seeing the variety of vessels operated by all sorts of carriers over the years, but he also feels these waterfront visits were essential to his keeping abreast with concerns of ship operators.
NCB was founded in 1952 in the wake of disasters such as the Port Chicago, Calif., munitions explosion that killed 320 in 1944, and the Texas City ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosions that killed 581 in 1947.
Ports around the waterfront were bustling with U.S. merchant ships built during World War II, and often they had cargo that was challenging to safely carry, be it grain or bulk cargo, hazardous materials, or heavy lift cargo such as steam locomotives moving to Europe under the Marshall Plan that required crews to 'tom up' or 'shore up' decks.
The NCB was formed through a merger of the Board of Underwriters of New York and the Marine Underwriters of San Francisco. A nonprofit, about half of its work is inspecting bulk ships carrying grain, the other half inspecting general cargo to make sure it is well stowed. It assists the Coast Guard in discharging responsibilities under the 1948 International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea. The certificates NCB issues are accepted as evidence of compliance with the provisions of the Dangerous Cargo Act and the Rules and Regulations for Bulk Grain Cargo.
While a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector looks at a ship with an eye to making sure the vessel is sanitary and doesn't harm the cargo, an NCB surveyor makes sure the cargo is loaded so that the ship and its crew are not harmed by cargo shifting or the ship being swamped in heavy seas.
Loading of grain in older ships used to involve devices such as shifting boards and bins to prevent cargo from shifting in heavy seas. But today, with newer self-trimming bulk carriers NCB surveyors use an engineering approach where they look at the characteristics of the grain, the liquids on the ship such as bunkers and ballast, and calculate proper loading.
2009 was a busy year for NCB, with record-breaking grain exports in New Orleans; Portland, Ore.; Seattle, Wash.; and Houston. Among the trends causing the boom were increased purchases by China because of the weak dollar, droughts in some nations, and reduced exports by other countries.
On container and breakbulk ships, NCB is hired by carriers, cargo interests or their insurers, to review dangerous cargo manifests, make sure heavy lifts are well secured and cargo is properly stowed in containers.
McNamara said he is troubled by the amount of misdeclared cargo being loaded on ships. For example, he said a container exploded in Port Newark last year. The bill of lading said the container held plastic scrap; it turned out to be filled with old gas tanks, made of plastic, to be sure, but not properly free of fumes.
Another example involved bulk cargo, iron fines from India, where higher moisture content caused several ships to severely list or even capsize, in some cases, just beyond their breakwaters.
During his seagoing career, McNamara only worked on breakbulk ships, and the only containers he ever saw were on deck, filled with Scotch whisky bound for New York.
But over the years, NCB has adapted to containerization and many of the inspections it does involve opening containers to make sure the contents are properly stowed. Last year NCB surveyors inspected 23,800 portable tanks and containers laden with hazardous cargo and also performed 734 inspections on cargo loaded on flat racks.
NCB surveyors account for about two-thirds of the 90 NCB employees around the country. They uncover all sorts of strange problems, including a couple of years ago, when bureau inspectors came upon a container partially filled with thousands of large frozen fish. Not only could the slippery frozen fish slide around in the container, possibly causing a weight shifting problem, they were rubbing each other raw.
NCB also trains crewmembers through both merchant marine academies and union programs in the proper stowage of cargo.
McNamara said two highlights of his career were chairing two cargo subcommittees at the International Maritime Organization in London, and serving on the panel of experts who investigated the sinking of the roll-on/roll-off passenger ferry M.S. Estonia. One of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century, 852 persons were lost in the accident.
Taking McNamara's place as president of NCB is Ian Lennard, who has worked at NCB for 13 years. Previously he was manager of the intermodal department for Zim Line in North America.
While he does not have a seafaring background, Lennard said one of his advantages has been working with McNamara for the past 11 years.
He said the bureau has a strong group of surveyors with technical expertise, and benefits from a stable workforce.
'What I tell people is that I hope to give more of the same. We've worked hard at keeping our proficiency up and our professional reputation and trying to create an efficient organization in all respects,' Lennard said.